Terry Francona closing in on Cleveland Indians all-time wins record
Take it from someone who is a lifelong fan of the team he now writes about, one of the most difficult things to keep in perspective with baseball is just how hard it is to win.
The amount of things that could go wrong over the course of 162 games is limitless, we could be here for hours covering just a handful of the bizarre and mundane things that make the sport of baseball so wonderous. But the value of a great skipper in today’s game, a manager that can toe the line between old school and analytics, is beyond priceless.
When Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell in the sixth inning of game six in the 2020 World Series so his ace wouldn’t face the Dodgers’ top of the order for a third time, despite the former Cy Young winner’s pitch count being in the 70s and Snell’s desire to stay in the game, EVERYONE was baffled.
On Saturday, July 10th in Houston, Aaron Boone and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees had a vintage MLB all-time mound meeting with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and Cole over 120 pitches where Cole vehemently demanded he stay in the game and finish his three-hit masterpiece. Boone conceded, and Cole would go on to blow a 99MPH fastball past Yordan Alvarez for his 129th pitch and the shutout.
These examples aren’t meant to cast doubt on any other managers in baseball, but they represent the extremes of the same situation. We don’t know for certain if Snell would have set down the top of the Dodgers order or if Aroldis Chapman could have retired Alvarez to preserve the Yankees’ 1-0 lead.
The questions these scenarios raise for a fan are twofold; where do you draw the line between analytics and trusting in your player to get the job done, and how hard is that for a manager to do?
Plain and simple, in a sport where anything and everything can, and will, go wrong, no one has all the answers, but what I do know for certain is the Cleveland Indians have a damn good manager in a sport that winning is hard to come by.
With Sunday’s game against the Royals postponed due to rain in Cleveland, Terry Francona heads to Denver to coach the American League All-Star’s alongside his former bullpen coach Kevin Cash with 45 wins added to his total this season. Francona sits third on the Tribe’s all-time wins list among managers with 718 total wins in Cleveland, and the record is in his crosshairs.
When Cleveland returns to play after the break on Friday in Oakland, Francona will begin his inevitable march past Mike Hargrove’s 721 wins and Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau’s 728. Both Hargrove and Boudreau had nine seasons with the Indians while Francona is currently in his ninth season here, representing the best winning percentage of the three at .561. In Francona’s eight full seasons with the Tribe, he has delivered five playoff appearances and an AL Pennant in the 2016 season.
It’s nearly impossible to judge these three on even footing given the different eras they all managed in, but when these three have been so successful in something so unpredictable is astounding. Boudreau was at the helm of Cleveland’s last World Series title in 1948 while Hargrove guided the franchise to two AL Pennants in 1995 and 1997. The difference among these three is their success outside of their time with the Tribe.
Boudreau would go on to do just okay with the Boston Red Sox before the Kansas City Athletics of the 1950s mustered some poor seasons while Hargrove would go on to be a decent manager with the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners.
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Meanwhile, Francona is not only approaching the all-time wins record here with the Indians, but he’s also second all-time among Boston Red Sox managers in wins with 744, delivering two World Series titles, most notably breaking the Curse of the Bambino in 2004.
Francona currently ranks 18th all-time in MLB history with 1,747 wins, good for third place among active managers behind Dusty Baker and Tony La Russa. Tito took over in 2013, relieving a three year stint under Manny Acta that never saw the team finish better than 80-82, and hasn’t guided Cleveland to a record below .500 in eight seasons and change. The Indians had the seventh most wins in baseball in the 2010s with 855, 636 of which belong to Francona.
To double back to our earlier scenarios, Francona has several moments in his storied career that prove his attention to analytics while trusting in his players competitiveness, most notably letting Curt Schilling pitch through a torn tendon in the infamous bloody sock game in the 2004 ALCS.
As for a moment with Cleveland that might define Francona, look no further than a game against the White Sox in Chicago on July 29th, 2017. With the game tied at four in the top of the ninth and the bases loaded, Terry Francona pinch hits Brandon Guyer, a journeyman right fielder hitting .222, for Erik Gonzalez. Guyer led the majors in getting hit by pitches the previous two seasons with 55 combined in 2015 and 2016, so it was inevitable that Guyer would get plunked on a 1-2 count and drive in the go-ahead run.
Who would think to do that, subbing in a .222 hitter with a magnet somewhere on his body versus a better hitter? The point being, Terry Francona is elite at what he does, and often gets the best out of his players.
2021 has been arguably Francona’s best job yet as the Tribe’s skipper, navigating the uncertain waters of the team’s pitching outside of Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac and an offense everyone knew wouldn’t be at the top of the league, to still be in contention at the All-Star break.
Even if the team falls out of contention in the second half, Francona is still going to end the season as Cleveland’s winningest manager over their 120+ years of history, needing just 11 wins to pass both Hargrove and Boudreau. That’s one hell of an accomplishment, and Cleveland is lucky to have him. Kudos, Tito.